Good brunch – but not quite to die for

Earlier today in Beirut as I made my way to Sassine for brunch with my 15-month old we passed yet another high-rise construction site called Embassy II. The floor plans show the usual cluster of vast living rooms, en suite bathrooms and tiny maid’s rooms. They’re accompanied by the tag-line “Your passport to luxury city living.”

An hour after leaving Sassine, I was back home, thinking about Lebanese business concepts which have filled a real gap in the market, like and Zawarib. You can’t think about business or any kind of investment in Beirut without pondering the instability of investments in a country which one pundit or another invariably puts on the brink of war. Ironic then that my thoughts are interrupted by a huge blast followed by the wail of ambulances. Soon the land line, the mobiles, and Skype were alive with friends and family checking for our vital signs. A couple of hours later, Naharnet, the source which seems to get news out the fastest, put the toll at 8 dead and 78 wounded in a car bomb just off Sassine.  Then their website got too overloaded to load. I’m glad I abandoned the idea of staying at Sassine to shop after kneife because my Beirut baby was so sleepy.

Yesterday I was sent this article in The Spectator on why one Lebanese has had enough of the frailty of life in Beirut. Unlike him, I haven’t lived through three wars. I was only on holiday here in May 2008 when gun fights sprang up like leaks in a plastic bag and Hizbollah took control of West Beirut. I don’t get war jitters like some who have lived through it. In fact that was my only trip here before deciding to move here and it didn’t put me off in the slightest. I didn’t even learn the Arabic for bomb until today – a good sign to be sure. But I’m no longer seized by the desire to head straight back up to Sassine to check the situation out. I have Beirut baby to think about. Frankly, worrying about her tripping as she toddles about on her little legs so soon after her first steps is as much as I want to handle.

The news now is that the head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Internal Security Forces was the target of the car bomb. The BBC says its the deadliest attack since May 2008. Still, on a purely selfish level it’s almost a relief to know that it was, as always in Lebanon, an attack with a specific target, a typical assassination. Doesn’t that make it less likely for innocent bystanders and their babies to get caught up in the violence than in countries where terrorism is more random? It’s not a relief for Lebanon though.

Some may be willing to put a million dollars into the Embassy II development, and maybe it will prove to be their passport to luxurious city living. But it might just as well give them a better view than they ever wanted over a brand new conflict on their doorstep. As Michael Karam points out in his very personal article, the third world affords certain luxuries which are hard to come by in the West, such as live-in home help at laughably low rates. But I think a lot of dual-citizen Lebanese out there are wondering whether they should be using their back-up nationality, their non-Lebanese passport, to get themselves a normal life elsewhere, instead of the sometimes luxurious but unstable life they lead in Lebanon. Others may be gritting their teeth as they knuckle down to a difficult period from which they have no escape.

New Radio 4 piece

Just to let you know my latest piece for the BBC programme From our Own Correspondent will go on air today at 11:30am UK time or 1:30pm Beirut time. You can listen to it online here. This time the topic is going about normal life while the prospect of a spillover from Syria looms closer.

Update: The text appears in the BBC Magazine here. Spoiler alert – I don’t answer the question in the title given it by the BBC. Let me know what you think here on Ginger Beirut.

First languages – part III

Read Part I and Part II.

Although the Lebanese have informally adopted a great wealth of foreign terms, they are a long way from establishing a new language, like Maltese. First of all, the French and English influences are by no means stable or having equal effect on the whole population. One person may speak fluent French and another none. This is because they are now largely chosen influences, not imposed ones. True, French is a legacy of the mandate era, but since the end of the mandate it has been kept alive by choice. It has become a sign of prestige or education, as it did in England in the 11th century. Christians even use it as a means to distinguish themselves from Muslims or Arabs in general. Likewise English is a tool for those wanting to travel to or do trade with the rest of the world.

The fact that these are not nationwide imposed influences means that Lebanese vocabulary is not being completely replaced by other languages. The multiple vocabularies co-exist at least across the country if not in every house. Therefore we continue to view non-Arabic vocabulary as an outside influence rather than an integral part of Lebanese. If the great majority of the population were to adopt the same new vocabulary, only then could we consider that Lebanese had evolved, even if only as a dialect.  Read the rest of this entry »

First languages – part II

Read Part I

I imagine that Lebanese expats across the world are often driven to exasperation by others persistently trying to nail down what their first language really is. Amin Maalouf, in Les Identités meurtrières, soundly skewers the urge we have as humans to reduce others to a single national identity, rather than recognising that an identity is made up of many elements which shift and change with time and experience.

Likewise those of us brought up with a single language often insist on trying to strip the bilingual or trilingual of their ‘surplus’ languages by spearing them with questions such as But what do you think in? What do you dream in?  We feel obliged to sort out this linguistic muddle of having two or three languages on the go. There must be one core language, one mother tongue we can limit it to.  Read the rest of this entry »

Rubber Stamp

For many, dealing with authorities in another country, in another language, with a whole new set of rules is more than a little daunting. While the third world may seem to have far fewer rules and regulations, jumping through hoops of red tape can be that much more difficult when the red tape in question is decidedly blurry around the edges, as I found while extracting nationality papers from a personally reticent local mukhtar and when I had a run-in with a cop on the make.

photo: aladyinlondon

This is the fourth Blogsherpa blog carnival in which Lonely Planet’s favourite bloggers relate their rubber stamp tales from around the world. This selection of stories shows how wanderlust triumphs over not only red tape but also beadledom, border disputes and mobs.

What happens when you get stuck in the middle of a Venn diagram where the ellipses are not allowed to overlap? A Lady in London writes about travelling from Jordan to Syria and keeping tabs on her cab driver to preclude an unexpected stop-off in Iraq.   Read the rest of this entry »